Right away I thought about many other owners who complain to me that they have lost a lot of their old customers. They tell me their customers are swayed by steering, websites, ads, and news stories designed to scare them away from small shops. I asked John if that happened to him. “Sometimes,” he replied, “but mostly when they try to sway my customers, they fail. My customers are my friends. Good friends never desert you.”
John isn’t the only small shop owner in business for more than 20 years. What does he do different that binds his customers to him with such loyalty? I overheard a couple of conversations with his customers. I noticed that John was scrupulously honest. He went to great pains to get the truth of the situation across to each customer. It appeared to me that no prospective customer would ever doubt John’s integrity. There was no phony “trust me” kind of selling on his part. He simply came across as 100% sincere and 100% determined to give or get for his customer the best deal possible. That kind of integrity speaks for itself.
I’m sure some would say to me, “Of course he comes across with integrity after 25 or 30 years! Who wouldn’t? But how can you communicate integrity instantly when you are meeting a prospective customer for the first time? Or when you’ve only been in business for less than a year? I recently had some work done on my house. The handyman that did the work sent me a thank-you note (not something I’ve ever received from a handyman before) and also he sent me something else I had never received from a handyman before: something he called “The Code of a Handyman.” It was a statement of his personal commitment to do a good job, to be on time, to perform as promised, to provide top service for a fair price, and a few other commitments to reassure me and his other customers that neither he nor anyone working with him would ever steal anything or knowingly damage any property or falsely represent what had been done. In short, it was a code of handyman honor, a pledge of integrity far more effective than verbally boasting of his integrity. Ralph Waldo Emerson once commented on a boastful political speaker. He noted, “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our valuables.”
The dictionary defines ‘integrity’ as follows: 1. Rigid adherence to a CODE of behavior. 2. The state of being sound; unimpaired. 3. Completeness; unity. Codes of ethics are often provided by various industry associations and also franchise operations. Such a ‘code,’ posted in a conspicuous place, can serve to reassure the prospective customer that this place of business is committed to following a definite criterion of ethical behavior. Of course the prospect can only hope the business owner and employees will actually adhere to the code they have posted, but at least the promise is there for all to see.
Recall that the third definition of ‘integrity’ was “completeness; unity.” It comes from the same root word as ‘integrated.’ That word has come to have a racial connotation, but actually means “to make into a whole by bringing all parts together.” The business owner who has ‘integrated’ into his or her community and become an ‘integral’ part of that community, is generally viewed as concerned and thus trustworthy. It is no longer necessary to ‘sell’ the public on one’s integrity.
During the worst of the recession in the early 1990s, John Baraona, owner of ‘Fussy Cleaners’ in Akron, OH, offered free dry-cleaning services to temporarily unemployed customers. When they finally landed new jobs in the cleaned and pressed clothes John had provided for them, they became his most loyal customers. Was there any further need for John to publicize his integrity? Integrity sells! In the short run, it may always be possible to lie and deceive, to gain a temporary victory. But in the long run one’s reputation for integrity, trustworthiness and honesty is the best sales and marketing asset of all.